NYRB I've Read This Year
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A Way of Life Like Any Other by Darcy O'Brien
Whether it's Jane Austen's shires or Patrick O'Brian's ships, it's never a bad idea to set a novel in a clearly defined, tightly constrained and constricted world. That's one reason Hollywood has been such a fruitful subject. From Nathanael West through F. Scott Fitzgerald and Michael Tolkin, Hollywood has proven fertile ground for authors taking a break from their screenplays, or, as in the case of Darcy O'Brien, taking a break from his professorial duties at Pomona College ( less than an hour, traffic permitting, from Hollywood and Vine). The gossip and glamor, the grime and grief of the place have fired many a writer's imagination—or perhaps it's the journalist that's inspired, since when dealing with the capital of glitter, "you can't make this stuff up." In O'Brien's case, the autobiographer comes into it too; he may have turned himself into a scholar, but he was born into Hollywood royalty, son of George O'Brien and Marguerite Churchill. They were Hollywood royalty, however, who were soon deposed, and that's what, for the most part, O'Brien writes about: the formerly famous and their uneasy relationship with real life. He gives us the story through the eyes of a boy and young man, moving, finally toward independence from his train-wreck of a family. With a skillful blending of farce and comedy, tragedy and wit, O'Brien has given us a delighful addition to the short shelf of essential Hollywood novels. (And don't skip over Seamus Heaney's excellent introduction.)
Herself Surprised by Joyce Cary.
If there's anyone who still doubts that male authors can create vibrant female characters Joyce Cary's Herself Surprised should be enough to dispel that misconception. It is a masterpiece of humanism in the way that Yasujiro Ozu's films are: the characters, that is, are human beings and are neither condemned nor exalted for being so, even as they live lives comprised of actions which run the gamut from those worthy of condemnation to those which exalt the doers and all around them. So attractive, in its Moll Flandersesque blowsiness, is the voice of Cary's first-person narrator Sara Monday that one does not feel over-eager to examine the other two pieces of the triptych, narrated, as they are, by others whose voices, one doubts, can be as vivifying. But no, with an artist like Cary at the controls one is certain that those characters, too, will be brimming with life.
I'm currently reading, and loving, Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge.
mrspenny, you are in for a treat!
Thus far this year, my favorite NYRB work is The Ten Thousand Things - a wonderful book.
#3 rebeccanyc, I'll have to check out Unforgiving Years.
Trying to pick favorites between those would be odd since they are so different. Sunflower was almost so otherworldly as to be difficult to describe. A Time of Gifts is perhaps the best discovery. I will want to read all Fermor's other prose- but perhaps spaced out over a few years.
I will have to look at Cary the next time I am in a bookshop. The Ten Thousand Things has also caught my eye and I am glad to know you enjoyed it.
Nathanael West's (I almost typed Hawthorne's) The Day of the Locust is, without a doubt, the greatest Hollywood novel ever. And it's just the sort of thing NRYB might republish. Perhaps they'll get around to it soon.
Michael Tolkin's books The Player and The Return of the Player are good fun, too, but much less intense and accomplished than West's visionary work.
The Comrade Tulayev waits in the tottering pile next to my desk. I'll have to seek out Serge's memoirs, too.
Shoemaker and Hoard publishes Gary Snyder, Guy Davenport, and David Markson. Need I say more?
The Ten Thousand Things sounds fascinating.
You need not say more. The list is impressive. I looked them up on the internet today. They've merged with two other small presses and become Counterpoint Press. Unfortunately, the site provides no backlist. However, I went to abebooks.com and got a fairly good idea of what the list consists. As it turns out, I was familiar; I simply had not paid attention to the press at the time.
Not published until 1971, twenty-five years after the author's death, and only now appearing for the first time in English (also Russian) translation, Victor Serge's Unforgiving Years is a masterpiece. Structured in four movements, the novel follows four revolutionaries through the horrors of the last century, and watches them grapple not only with physical hardships, but also with their growing realization that the one successful revolution, that in the service of which they have placed themselves, was, even long before the USSR's demise, in fact a dismal failure. That Serge himself was, as Richard Greeman notes in his excellent Introduction, "a revolutionary and an internationalist more or less from birth" allows him to write with an authority that is rare in authors attempting to depict millieu as obscure at those Serge's characters traverse, but the novel is much more than a documentary. It is a work of the highest art.
#6, Marensr, I was so amazed by A Time of Gifts that I went right on to read Between the Woods and the Water, which continues the journey. I also bought two of Patrick Leigh Fermor's other books (also NYRBs), Mani and Roumeli, which I've only dipped into but don't seem to have the richness or complexity of the other two, and A Time to Keep Silence, which was completely different, but wonderful.
I've looked at A Way of Life Like Any Other and not bought it, but your recommendation, dcozy, is encouraging me to look at it again.
13 Thank you sarajill! I will check out her essay. I enjoy Sontag as well so I am curious to see what she makes of it.
Edited to see if the touchstones will work!
Do you have other favorite books that cover those periods?
I did read the introduction to A Time to Keep Silence and found it interesting that he apologized for the breech of hospitality in writing about the monasteries he stayed in. I suppose that is a sort of disappearing world as well.
It sounds like the kind of story I might enjoy.
P.S. I put it on my Amazon wishlist.
Urania you have good book groups.
I read through the first two books of Proust on my own (the Moncreiff translation that has been mentioned in another thread) and I wished I had someone to discuss them with.
That said I am going through (mostly American) authors I have neglected with a friend. Next I think we're reading Democracy in America.
Well my consolation with Le Grand Meaulnes that it is short and if you all don't like it it won't have taken much time. I actuallly had one of those magical runs of very good books about the time I first read it. I had read Elizabeth and her German Garden, The Solitary Summer. The Return of the Soldier, A Month in the Country and Le Grand Meaulnes all in rapid succession. I think they all color how I feel about the other books.
The genetic make-up of an organism determines every aspect of its psychology and physiology. The differences between men and women at the genetic level are tremendous and tremendously significant. There is such a thing as a DNA fingerprint which can be reliably used to identify criminals. Social science is scientific. "Science is, above all else, a reality-driven enterprise . . . . Reality is the overseer at one's shoulder, ready to rap one's knuckles or to spring the trap in to which one has been led . . . by a too complacent reliance on mere surprise. . . . Reality is the unrelenting angel with whom scientists have agreed to wrestle" (Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science). To each of the above assertions (and others) biologist Richard C. Lewontin says "It ain't necessarily so," and he does so with such panache and wit, that his eviscerations of these commonplaces, collected in It Ain't Necessarily So, are a joy to read.
As it's the first book I've finished in 2009 it would be premature to say that this will be the best book I read this year, but I feel certain that it will be a remarkable year indeed if I come across anything better than Álvaro Mutis's The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. This is not my first encounter with Mutis's protagonist; I met him first in an earlier collection of Mutis's Maqroll tales. New York Review Books, though, has, in this anthology, augmented those stories with others, and allowed Mutis to add what I take to be new material binding the various accounts together, as well as an excellent introduction by Francisco Goldman. If you have not had the pleasure of making Maqroll's acquaintance, don't wait. These are adventure stories for adults. Set in Majorca, Amazonia, the San Fernando Valley, Malaysia, and elsewhere, told with wit, panache, and profundity, they are what fiction should be—one of the things it should be—and too often is not. Maqroll can stand with any mythic hero one cares to name, but as he's a sailor it is hard to resist the notion that Mutis has given us another Odysseus, another Ulysses.
Are you trying to ruin my 2009 New Year's resolution before I have even started? No more new books I said. Now I have to go order The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. I have just finished reading Edward Lewis Wallant's The Tenants of Moonbloom. Wallant had a gift for tracing the lives of even the most misshapen of people in delicate lines, simple yet deceptively subtle and beautiful. I cried and cheered at the end of the book.
Didn't Saint Augustine say something like: "Let me stop buying books, oh Lord, but not yet"?